January 5, 2011

Emotional Abuse in the Film Sybil

Posted in Emotional Abuse tagged , , , , at 10:00 am by rainbowgryphon

Over the weekend, I saw the film Sybil. This was the 1976 version with Sally Field and Joanne Woodword. It’s based on the book by Flora Schreiber, which originally came out in 1973. The book/film is about a woman who dealt with physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by dissociating (then called multiple personality disorder). People typically draw attention to the horrifying sexual abuse shown in the film, which I think is shocking even for today’s society, jaded as we are by the sexual violence we see all around us. However, Sybil also suffers from some very disturbing emotional abuse in the film, and that’s what I want to talk about in this post.

Before I do, though, I think it’s important to show some respect for this condition and the people who suffer from it. The book focused on a subject that wasn’t well understood at the time. In her preface to the book, Schreiber calls the case “bizarre.” There’s a better understanding now of dissociative identity disorder (DID), and most people who dissociate can function very well in society. In fact, that’s the whole purpose of dissociation. I watched the film knowing that there would be a lot of drama in it that didn’t reflect what it’s really like to have DID.

Sybil’s Abusive Mother

The DVD version, which is shorter than the original mini-series when it aired in 1976, doesn’t show us a lot of interaction between Sybil and her mother because the main focus is on Sybil’s healing later as an adult. The film also makes a point of depicting the mother, Hattie, as off her rocker, as if this explains the abuse. The real Hattie was apparently diagnosed once with schizophrenia.

However, we can hear and see how Hattie humiliates her daughter in multiple ways. Sybil has a memory of Hattie supervising her piano playing and telling her she has more talent in her little finger than Sybil has in her whole body. (Sybil’s mother was apparently an extremely talented pianist.) Hattie deliberately makes her trip down the stairs and shoves the swinging kitchen door in her face. She laughs at her Christmas ornament and her drawing of a green chicken with purple feet.

These kinds of behaviors are only a slight exaggeration of what goes on in some families. In her book Toxic Parents, Susan Forward tells of a woman whose mother was an aspiring dancer and was constantly criticizing her daughter’s dancing. The daughter tells of a performance as a preteen where her mother told her in front of her friends that she “danced like an elephant,” and later in the car, instead of apologizing or consoling her, she told her she was a bad dancer.

I remember once as a young child showing my mother a picture of a little girl that I’d drawn. At first, she said, “That’s wonderful, honey.” But then came the criticism. “But why did you make her head so big and her arms and legs so skinny? Here, let me show you how to do it.” She then drew over what I’d drawn and gave the picture back to me, saying, “Now that’s how to draw a little girl.”

My mother’s reaction brings up another issue about Hattie’s emotional abuse towards Sybil in the film. She sends her child confusing messages, being sweet one moment and cruel the next. There’s a scene where Hattie lies to Sybil about getting her tonsils out. She shows up afterwards with a chocolate ice cream. After she makes her daughter trip down the stairs, she gives her a cookie. After she angrily beats her at Christmas, she gives her a candy cane.

This isn’t unusual in emotionally abusive families either. It certainly happened in my family. I learned not to trust compliments because they were often followed by harsh criticism, ridicule, or manipulation. Perhaps not being able to trust the encouragement that came from my parents was even worse than the criticism. I could ignore the negative feedback and keep drawing little girls with big heads and skinny limbs, but I couldn’t ignore the mistrust that was developing towards those who were supposed to be unconditionally supportive.

Sybil’s Father

There’s also a tendency in the case of Sybil to focus on the mother’s horrific abuse, but the father is no less at fault. In the film, we see him withholding money from Sybil, going on and on about his rigid religious ideas, and denying that his wife was an abuser. Dr. Wilbur essentially tries to get him to verify that the abuse actually happened when Sybil denies it towards the end of the film and gets no help from him.

Sybil’s father was a typical passive abuser. He didn’t ask questions and accepted whatever his wife said about Sybil’s physical injuries and behavior. The film portrays him as easily dominated by both his first wife (the abusing Hattie) and his second wife (the penny-pinching Frieda). I also suspect gender role norms at the time had something to do with his blindness to what was going on. His responsibility was to provide, and his wife’s responsibility was to raise the child. As a result of his passivity, his daughter was severely abused.

An article from Newsweek from 1999 is about the real Sybil (Shirley Mason), who died in 1998. People who knew her speak of her mother’s bizarre behaviors and complete control over her. As a child Shirley was shy, and as an adult prior to therapy, it seems she had trouble believing in her intelligence, creativity, and talent. The emotional abuse she suffered from both of her parents had effects that were no less harsh and difficult to overcome than the physical and sexual abuse she underwent.

December 24, 2010


Posted in Emotional Abuse tagged , , , , at 12:30 pm by rainbowgryphon

Isolation is a form of emotional abuse that can be tricky to put a finger on. Sometimes it’s obvious, like threatening violence if kids don’t come right home after school or forbidding them from having anyone over or from going to other people’s houses. Sometimes, though, it can be more subtle, like monitoring phone calls and text messages, constantly criticizing people outside the family, or ignoring a child’s requests to go to summer camp or the local pool. Such isolation causes more than just loneliness. It can really make it difficult for us to relate to other human beings in a healthy way later on in life.

Reasons for Isolation

Isolation behavior on the part of emotionally abusive parents begins with mistrust. They’re suspicious of anyone outside the family, assigning strange motives for their behaviors or suspecting some hidden agenda. These abusers likely believe they’re being good parents by protecting their children from anticipated harm. Their assumptions, though, have more to do with their own hostility towards the world than with reasonable safety precautions.

A slightly different, but related, motivation for isolating children is a fear of having their kids influenced by others. Isolation is an effective way for emotionally abusive parents to control their children’s environment, which makes it easier to control their beliefs and behavior. Exposure to people with other worldviews could encourage them to think differently and eventually see through the distorted worldview that the family system is based on. All of this threatens the fragile family structure.

Jealousy is also a motive for isolating a child from others. Emotionally abusive parents who have dependency issues may resent the idea that anyone else should give their kids what they need or make them happy. They may also fear that other adults will break through the all-knowing, almighty image that they’ve set up for themselves and do things better than them.

Effects from Isolation

Just as isolating parents often justify their behavior as being responsible, isolated children can convince themselves that their parents are doing it out of love. If this is accompanied by hostile behaviors like constant criticism, name-calling, and ridicule, kids may even cling to isolation behaviors as proof of their parents’ love and concern for them. This, of course, distorts the motivations underlying the entire abusive family system, making other abusive behaviors somehow acceptable.

Isolating kids from their peers and those around them can also make them feel like they’re misfits. They see other kids making friends and spending time away from the family, and they may not understand why it has to be different for them. They may convince themselves that they’re “special” and somehow “above” other kids around them as a way to explain what they intuitively know are odd rules.

Closing them off from contact with kids who live differently reinforces the assumption that abusive behaviors are “normal.” These kids can’t help but assume that the pain they endure goes on in every family, so the justifications emotionally abusive parents give for their behavior must be true. Imagine how enlightening it would be for a child to witness a non-abusive parent comfort and encourage a teammate after he bombed in a soccer game instead of criticize him and make him feel bad, the way his emotionally abusive parents would.

Eventually, isolated kids may end up believing in a hostile world that they feel helplessness in, which may keep them tied to their parents even when they grow up. They may also eventually develop difficulties in relating to others in an authentic way because they’re always suspicious of other people’s motives or scared that they’ll be “exposed” as not worth knowing.

Having good relationships with other people, no matter what the environment, demands sensitivity and flexibility. It takes practice, but we don’t get that in isolation. When we become adults and interact with people in multiple environments, we may end up feeling completely overwhelmed and go right back to our isolation.

Isolation in My Family

I grew up with mixed messages when it came to connecting with people. My parents were always pushing me to make friends. They thought I was too isolated and blamed it on a bunch of things: being a twin (and therefore not needing anyone else, or so they thought), American society that was individual-oriented rather than community-oriented, my unconventional looks, shyness, and so on. I’m convinced that they thought there was something wrong with me for not having as many friends as they thought I should have.

But I’ve recently realized that as they pushed me to make friends, they cultivated isolation. My parents didn’t really trust anyone. Part of it had to do with cultural differences. They didn’t understand what the use was in placing such an emphasis on individuality, as American society does. They were always telling me not to do “American” things or be like the Americans.

Part of it, though, was the hostility they harbored against everyone. They expected to be hurt by people. Unless they could rise above others through some social norm (prestige, education, money, appearances), they didn’t feel safe. I doubt they were much aware of their isolating behaviors and were just following their impulse to protect us from what they felt were guaranteed blows from strangers.

Isolation cultivated in childhood easily becomes a way of life in adulthood. Some of us may continue the pattern because it’s safe. Others of us may gravitate towards partners and friends who essentially repeat the isolating behavior (which is not uncommon in domestic abuse relationships). Like all emotionally abusive behavior, it ultimately serves the emotional needs of the abuser. The abuse victim is left feeling lonely, confused, and oppressed.

December 17, 2010

I’m Not Crazy

Posted in Emotional Abuse tagged , , , at 10:00 am by rainbowgryphon

FundsforWriters is a weekly ezine with paid writing opportunities, including contests, grants, and publishers. It also runs an annual essay contest. The prompt this year was “When Writing Made a Difference.” I thought about how Toxic Parents by Susan Forward was the book that made me understand what had really happened in my childhood. Others (for instance, some by Beverly Engel) have also really helped, but Forward’s was the first, so I wrote my essay about it. It didn’t win, but since it’s relevant to the topic of this blog, I thought I’d post an expanded version of it here.

I’m Not Crazy

In the spring of 2008, I emerged from hiding just like the flower buds around me. I had just been through a period of turmoil. For four years, I’d been working at a job I hated only to eventually cling to a business idea that was completely wrong for me just to feel as if I was doing something. I finally “got it” that I was leaping from one crappy job to another, and I abandoned the business. Then began a scramble to find more work before my savings ran out completely.

By spring 2008, the turmoil had settled. I was scraping by but completely lost about where to go next. I could have kept running around in circles, chasing bad ideas and abandoning them, but I was lucky. I discovered a book called Toxic Parents by Susan Forward that forced me to see everything I didn’t want to see about my life, my past, and why it had always been so hard for me to know what was truly in my heart.

The journey towards this painful awareness began with an afternoon walk on a bright day. I live in a college town where winter lingers through April, but it was May now, and the pavement was lined with the first bashful buds of spring. Yet I felt hopeless, as if the stagnation of my life would never change. Or more precisely, as if I could never change it. My mind drifted to my past as I left the center of our small town and made my way into one of our more affluent neighborhoods.

I remembered the constant criticism, ridicule, unsolicited advice, smothering, and condescension that made up my childhood. I remembered too the feelings of shame, helplessness, and confusion that never left me as I progressed through high school, military service, college, a move to another continent, and finally the big break that had brought me to this little college town where I believed everything would finally get better.

It didn’t seem right. Did other people live with a constant sick feeling in their stomach, expecting to be attacked for everything they did or said? Did they feel guilty for being angry at the people who confessed love for them? Did they always feel like they messed everything up? Was that how you were supposed to feel when you were with your family? Suddenly I thought, “Those people really abused me.” But then I recoiled from the word “abuse.” Not my responsible, sacrificing, loving parents. Right?

I’m not sure what prompted me to move beyond just thoughts, but when I got home, I turned to that sea of information, the Internet, and did a search for emotional abuse. This led me to a website that quoted from a book by Susan Forward called Toxic Parents. My pubic library’s catalog showed two copies, and I wasted no time in getting it. I read it all in one sitting.

My parents were all over the place. She said I didn’t have to forgive them. I didn’t have to look upon them as the almighty parents who were always right, even when they caused me some of the deepest pain I’d ever experienced. Trying to control my every move was wrong. Making me feel like I couldn’t do anything right was wrong. Smothering me with their “concern” was wrong. Making fun of everything that made me different from what they thought I ought to be was wrong.

I used to have lots of dreams with people telling me I was crazy because I really believed that I was. Thanks to Susan Forward, I know that I’m not crazy. Things really had been wrong all growing up. It really was abuse. I’d grown up disbelieving in my pain, which made it impossible to move past it.

Susan Forward’s book was the beginning of change. I’ve so far ventured further from my comfort zone than I ever have before, and I know where I’m going and that I’ll eventually get there, one way or another. I even blog now about emotional abuse, laying it all out to make sure other victims don’t live for years thinking they’re crazy, like I did. I’m indebted to Susan Forward for telling people like me that even though I never suffered a bruise or a sexual violation, my pain mattered.

December 7, 2010

Abuse and Family Loyalty

Posted in Emotional Abuse tagged , , , at 10:00 am by rainbowgryphon

Family loyalty is a major issue with physical abuse, sexual abuse, and substance abuse, but it’s an issue in emotionally abusive families too. Loyalty is often seen as a positive force. It holds people together and teaches us to value human connections that are so deep as to deserve loyalty. This, however, is based on the assumption that those whom we are loyal to are loving, supportive, and accepting of us. Family loyalty is a warped value in abusive families.

Reasons Behind Family Loyalty

Loyalty to the family is clearly in the interests of the abusers. In many cases, they suffer actual loss of liberty if someone who insists on doing the right thing finds out about their behavior. This becomes more obvious when the behavior is criminal: sexual molestation, physical assaults, and use of illegal substances.

Shame is also a motivator. I suspect many abusers are aware that sexual molestation, alcohol or drug abuse, and even beating up on someone are signs of weakness. Family loyalty, then, protects the one who has the most interest in being protected.

Kids also may need to believe in the almighty power of those who have authority over their lives. The god-like parents must be right and everyone else, including the abused child, wrong. If they expose the abuser for what they are, they risk shattering that illusion of strength.

They may also hope that if they’re loyal enough, the abuser will eventually give them what they really need (love, protection, acceptance, encouragement, etc.). Even just a moment of acceptance, such as a nod of approval at not exposing the abusive parent to an inquiring stranger, is something for them to hang onto.

Loyal family members will often make convenient excuses for the abuser’s behavior. They may blame other circumstances like substance abuse (the alcohol makes him do it), stress (she can’t find work and that makes her do it), and pressure from others (her boss gets on her case and that makes her do it). Worst of all is family loyalty backed by accusations against the child. If the child would clean up his room like he’s supposed to, his father wouldn’t have to beat him. If she didn’t dress so provocatively then her father would leave her alone.

Excuses like this really boil down to the same message. The abuser didn’t mean it. He or she isn’t a bad person at heart, and only bad people hurt their children. This gives justification for the family loyalty because no one wants to get a good person into trouble.

One final motivation for family loyalty is mistrust of outsiders, including social services, police, and therapists. Kids may be fed these messages from others (within the family or even outside of the family) who were let down by the system. Although this kind of suspicion may be rooted in past experience, I believe the real motivation is a distorted worldview that encourages mistrust of anyone outside the family who might shatter the fragile status quo.

Effects from Family Loyalty

When abused kids comply with pressure to remain loyal to the abuser and not tell, they invalidate what they’re feeling and experiencing. This feeds the twin monsters of low self-esteem and worthlessness. Their suffering isn’t important enough to break the family loyalty. It teaches them to listen to their head over their heart when their heart is telling them the truth.

Children who want badly to violate the rules of family loyalty may suffer from accusations of selfishness (externally or internally). They feel like they’re evil for placing their personal needs before the needs of the entire family. This plays into the distorted worldview of the family system where it’s OK for those in authority, but not OK for those subordinate to that authority, to be selfish.

We also can’t ignore the guilt, stated or implied, for betraying the family. This is especially strong in situations where the abuser can suffer from loss of liberty. Threats of being responsible for breaking up the family are common. A child can also be manipulated into feeling sympathy for the abuser with comments like “do you want to see your father go to jail” or “they’ll be so mean to your mother in rehab.”

Family Loyalty and Emotional Abuse

In cases of emotional abuse, the threat of loss of liberty isn’t generally a factor in the absence of physical abuse, sexual abuse, substance abuse, or physical neglect. However, there’s still the possibility of a family breakup. This might be in the form of a divorce. If a child complains of feeling constantly bad because of a parent’s abusive comments or behavior, this could lead the spouse to better recognize the true damage this is having on everyone.

In the case of adult children, the break-up might involve a kind of family meltdown. Perhaps one of the adult kids seeks therapy for one reason or another, and in the course of exploring problems, the family member realizes the extent of the emotional abuse. Because this type of abusive behavior usually doesn’t stop in adulthood, they begin to cope with it in a more direct way, setting boundaries that weren’t set before (including going no contact) and trying to communicate their pain to other family members.

Emotional abuse victims are also vulnerable to being told it’s their own fault if they break the family loyalty. It’s very easy to turn emotionally abusive behavior around so that the victim is the one who’s done something wrong. My obsessively critical father, for instance, was only trying to help me be a better person. My interfering mother was only showing her love.

We can also be made to feel at fault for “allowing” the emotional abuse to happen. When discussing self-blame in emotionally abusive situations, I mention how the strong emotions involved in this type of abuse can make it difficult for us to stand up for ourselves. If we try to tell non-abusive family members or people outside the family that we’re constantly bombarded with belittling jokes, intrusive advice, or criticism, we’re liable to be told to ignore them or to simply tell the abuser to stop it.

Perhaps there’s a greater risk in emotionally abusive situations to feel like we’re evil or crazy if we violate unspoken loyalty to the abuser. Because emotional abuse is sometimes so subtle, it can easily be explained away. My grandmother, for instance, was an extremely selfish and manipulative woman. She always claimed that she couldn’t give my mother what she wanted as a child because they couldn’t afford it. I believe my mother when she said there was usually money for what my grandmother wanted but never for anyone else. I remember her complaining about my grandmother’s narcissism to me when my grandma was in the room with us. She looked at me, shook her head, and said, “Your mother’s crazy!”

Family loyalty is essentially another manipulation tactic used by abusers to hide their abuse. In cases of physical and sexual abuse, it’s particularly disempowering. Even if authorities get wind of what’s going on, family loyalty ensures that they can do nothing because no one will tell the truth. Even in emotionally abusive situations, family loyalty is a strong force that keeps the victim oppressed. Loyalty can be a beautiful human quality, but only when it’s towards those who deserve it. Abusers and those who support them never deserve that kind of loyalty.

December 5, 2010

The Passive/Silent Abuser

Posted in Emotional Abuse tagged , , , , at 10:00 am by rainbowgryphon

The passive abuser is a well-known issue in physical and sexual abuse. This refers to the silent partner who knows the abuse is taking place but chooses, for his or her own reasons, to ignore it. This also happens in emotional abuse. In fact, the subtle nature of emotional abuse makes it even easier to deny.

The Passive Abuser’s Role

In Toxic Parents, Susan Forward describes passive or silent abusers as dependent and childlike. They’re absorbed in their own survival. By denying, minimizing, and/or justifying the abuse, they don’t rock the boat and believe they’re maintaining a stable environment for their children. Denial, minimization, and/or justification of the abuse also lets them off the hook for failing to protect their children. Susan Forward further points out that when the victimized children identify with the passive or silent abuser, they can deny the fact that this parent has essentially used them to meet their own emotional needs. The passive abuser is an emotional abuser.

In the Houston Law Review, Spring 2000 (Vol. 37), Amy Nilsen makes an eloquent argument for holding passive/silent abusers as legally responsible for physical and sexual abuse as the active abuser. She writes that the passive abuser is in a prime position to know the truth because s/he is right inside the abusive situation and is often also a victim.

I would argue this is especially true of emotional abuse because part of the problem in identifying it is understanding how emotionally abusive behavior fits into the entire family dynamics. The passive/silent abuser witnesses an emotionally abusive partner’s extreme, repetitive behavior and also understands the distorted, sometimes bizarre beliefs that fuel it.

Nilsen, in a footnote to her paper, mentions a 1983 article from Christine Adams. Adams discusses denial in sexual abuse cases. The passive parent may block out awareness of it initially, but often he or she eventually acknowledges the abuse, at least internally. However, the outward denial may continue by placing the blame on the child, minimizing the extent of the damage, or becoming preoccupied with conflicts over what to do.

This is no less true of emotional abuse. Let’s say a father reprimands his daughter harshly for getting some Bs on her report card. She ends up in tears, frustrated because she can’t make him understand that she did the best she could. As an emotional abuser, this father is a perfectionist parent who doles out constant criticism, and his wife is as much a victim of it as his children. And yet, how easy is it for the passive abuser to justify her husband’s harsh behavior?

Why Parents Remain Silent About Abuse

With physical abusers, the passive partner may have a real fear of suffering physical retaliation. The Child Welfare Information Gateway reports that there may be from 30 to 60 percent overlap between domestic abuse and child abuse. In other words, 30 to 60 percent of families with one also experience the other. I have to wonder whether these statistics really reflect the extent of the overlap. I think physical abuse is a maladaptive way to handle feelings like stress, anger, fear, and low self-esteem. The problem isn’t in the so-called triggers; the problem is in the abuser.

Silent partners may fear retaliation in other ways. Often they’re emotionally and financially dependent on the abuser. They feel like there’s nowhere to go and no one to help them, even if they were to leave. So they justify, minimize, and/or deny that there’s even a problem. They may also feel pressure (internally or perhaps from those around them) to “work things out” and not break up the relationship.

I think this is especially true for emotional abuse, which isn’t well recognized as a “legitimate” form of abuse. Is it worth it for a woman to go on welfare just because her partner is constantly criticizing her and the kids? Isn’t a woman being too sensitive if she wants out of a marriage with a name-caller or ridiculer who makes jokes at her children’s expense? Don’t we all lose it sometimes and lash out at the people we care about?

The Passive Partner’s Emotional Abuse

The silent abuser is essentially taking an emotional distance from his or her children. It’s not possible to remain passive in the face of abuse without keeping empathy in check. Nilsen cites studies that show a child suffers greater damage from abuse if a passive parent is involved. Children feel rejected when they look to someone who should protect them from harm but doesn’t. We search for some validation of our worth in the non-abuser (since we obviously can’t get it from the abuser). Instead, we find more support for deserving the pain we’re receiving, which reinforces our helplessness.

The passive partner may also place a special burden on their abused children. A kind of role reversal may go on where the kids feel they have to protect the silent partner. “Many adult children,” Forward writes, “excuse the passive partner because they see that parent as a co-victim.” This is an attractive role for the children to take because it gives them some sense of empowerment. They’re not entirely victims; they have the power to protect someone else who’s suffering. Unfortunately, all this does is reinforce a screwed-up family system where the passive abuser denies they’re doing anything wrong and the children deny that those who are supposed to nurture them are out to destroy them.

Passive Abusers in My Family

Each of my parents was essentially a passive abuser as well as an active abuser. My mother rarely defended me against my father’s harsh criticisms, condescension, and strong-arm tactics. My father, in turn, rarely defended me against my mother’s ridicule, hostility, and smothering. It never even occurred to me to look towards one for protection against the other.

Part of this may be because they were as abusive towards each other as they were towards their children. During long-distance telephone conversations, for instance, my father would repeatedly tell my mother to shut up. Rarely would my mother protest. In turn, my mother would sometimes say horrible things to my father, telling him he was useless or a jerk. He would either lash out at her or withdraw all communication with her.

This doesn’t change the fact, though, that both were more absorbed in upholding an illusion of a stable, loving family than in protecting their children’s self-esteem and sanity. Sometimes we have no choice but to set aside all excuses and admit the truth. The passive parent is an emotional abuser. Through their silence, they made us feel rotten.

November 30, 2010

Perfectionist Parents and Constant Criticism

Posted in Emotional Abuse tagged , , at 8:00 am by rainbowgryphon

Research shows a link between perfectionist parents and constant criticism, which is logical. Many in our results-driven society will argue that these parents are simply cultivating high standards of achievement in their children. They’d rather see a child harassed for minor mistakes than parents ignoring a substandard performance. Constant criticism, though, isn’t about quality, however much the parents believe it is. It’s really about parents using the child to fulfill their emotional needs, which is what emotional abuse is all about.

When Perfectionism Is Destructive

Perfectionism isn’t, in itself, destructive. Setting high standards and showing care in what we do can be a blueprint for quality and growth. However, like most things in life, balance is the key. A desire for quality and growth needs to be balanced with adaptability. There’s no reason why we can’t set high standards and still flow with the rhythm of life, which is by nature inconsistent.

In an article called “Pitfalls of Perfectionism” for Psychology Today, Hara Estroff Marano tells us that “[w]hat turns life into the punishing pursuit of perfection is the extent to which people are worried about mistakes.” Perfectionists equate how they do with who they are, and the non-stop barrage of critiques in their head generate constant uncertainty. Consequently, they rarely gain satisfaction from their achievements because they’re never sure they got it “just right.”

The seeds of perfectionism are sown in childhood. When left to our own devices, I think we intuitively understand that the world is an imperfect place. Kids have a natural ability to be satisfied with imperfect results. They take pleasure in what comes of their efforts, no matter how goofy those results might be. A picture may be disproportionate, a structure may be lopsided, but whatever. There’s always next time, right? Perfectionist parents with their constant criticism squash that natural wisdom.

Reasons Behind Constant Criticism

John and Linda Friel write about perfectionist parents and constant criticism in their book Adult Children: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families. They think that these parents are essentially trying to keep the dissatisfaction that they feel with themselves and their lives under control by molding their children into perfect beings. Because their children are dependent on them for more than just their physical needs, they gain a sense of empowerment in directing their children’s behavior, thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. Marano adds that “[i]n the grand scheme of things, perfectionism is an intrusive form of parenting that attempts to control the psychological world of the child.”

Marano further reports on studies conducted by Belgian researchers that perfectionism and constant criticism can reflect an abusive parent’s fear over watching their kids get more and more independent. This kind of hanging on is actually reflected in multiple different types of emotionally abusive behavior, such as smothering and offering constant unsolicited advice. Part of this has to do with the abuser’s identity as the all-knowing, all-able parent who sees the child as an extension of himself or herself. Watching that essential part of their identity tearing away from them creates a deep feeling of loss in the abusive parents that’s extremely painful to cope with.

Effects of Constant Criticism

One price for this is an unpleasant relationship between parents and child. Constant criticism leads to feelings of harassment where those whom the child expects to be understanding and supportive are harsh and unkind. The Friels say constant criticism creates a distance between the criticizer and the one being criticized.

Marano also discusses the link between conditional love and performance. It never has to be stated explicitly for emotionally abused kids to understand that unless they perform up to their parents’ standards, they won’t receive encouragement, support, or approval from those who have such a major influence on their sense of self.

The Friels also make a link between constant criticism and shame. If we can never measure up to our parents’ tremendous expectations in childhood, and later on our own, then we’re left with a constant uncomfortable feeling that there’s something fundamentally wrong with us. As we grow up, we link self-worth to actions, equating success with worth and failure with worthlessness.

What goes on inside of us has an effect on what we eventually do. Marano notes that perfectionism inhibits creativity and flexibility. Perfectionists “don’t get to discover what they truly like or to create their own identities.” I would also argue that perfectionist parents who are constantly criticizing their children are doing just that to them. As much as we try to tell ourselves that it’s not fatal to make a mistake, we sense the barrage of negativity that will come to us if we do and it terrifies us.

Constant Criticism in My Family

Both of my parents were critical, but my father excelled in this form of emotional abuse. I honestly can’t recall sharing anything I did with him and getting unqualified praise. He always had “suggestions” for doing it better next time. I knew that after every conversation with him, I’d walk away feeling incompetent.

He had a clever way of invalidating my anger, too, if I dared to object. “You can’t take criticism,” he’d say. That would shut me up right away. Even as a young adult, I never questioned that he was right and I was wrong. It also never occurred to me that I didn’t have to accept his criticism as the truth. He was my father. He was supposed to only speak the truth.

Predictably, growing up with these kinds of parents can make us sensitive to all criticism. Constant criticism from an abusive parent is hostile, leaving kids feeling like the people who are supposed to protect them are actually out to get them. We have to remind ourselves that most of the time, there are no hostile intentions behind the critique from others. We also have to remind ourselves that we don’t have to accept all of the criticism. We’re allowed to honor our own judgment. We’re autonomous human beings and not extensions of anyone else.

November 26, 2010


Posted in Emotional Abuse tagged , , , at 10:00 am by rainbowgryphon

Name-calling is one of the more straightforward forms of verbal abuse, so it’s one of the first red flags that we’re dealing with an emotional abuser. It happens a lot in domestic abuse situations, but my focus in this article is on the name-calling that happens between parents and children. Like all forms of emotional abuse, dealing with name-calling in childhood sets us up for accepting it as “normal” in later relationships.

Labels Come in Many Shapes

Name-calling is a tool of control and manipulation by the abusive parents. Common names used by parents towards their children may include the following: stupid/idiot/moron, cry baby, clutz, loser, lazy, ugly, selfish, bastard, whore, little shit, and worse.

Sarah Chana Radcliffe has written an article on name-calling within the family at Parenting-Advice.net. She discusses adjectives that are used in various sentence structures. These may appear to simply describe a child’s behavior, but they act as labels (just like names) that have a deeper effect. “Parents cannot minimize the effects of a negative label by trying to hide it in various sentence structures. If the label is used anywhere in a sentence, it will be felt as an insult by the child.”

For instance, telling a child he or she did something stupid or behaved stupidly is as bad as calling a child stupid. No amount of word twisting can make a child dissociate actions from identity.

Names as Identity

Names are a form of identity. This is true on a fundamental level in that when someone calls our name, we know they’re referring to us. When words are used as labels, they combine identity with meaning. Just as sweetheart or darling can make us feel loved, bastard or bitch can make us feel rotten.

The repetitiveness of emotionally abusive name-calling embeds the label into a child’s mind, and it eventually integrates into the child’s self-image like a river eventually joins the ocean. Radcliffe says that “being called names can leave the child truly believing that he or she is damaged, worthless, useless, bad and defective, as well as unlovable.”

Like any emotionally abusive behavior, we’re often left wondering if there’s something we can do or avoid doing in order not to be attacked with these hurtful labels. I’ve seen online discussions from people involved in domestically abusive relationships where participants advise victims to tell their abuser how they feel, try to remain calm, and examine their own behavior to see what triggered the name-calling. When we think this way, we’re trying to control the uncontrollable. There’s nothing we can do about a compulsive name caller. They need to admit that they’re abusers and really want to change their behavior for it to stop.

Name-Calling in My Family

Name-calling was a favorite tactic in my family. My grandfather would call my grandmother a made-up name that was a play on the word zero. My grandmother was a woman who knew several languages. She went to night school in order to get her high school diploma (my grandfather, incidentally, never graduated from high school). She had as successful a career as a woman could have in those days in the business world as an executive secretary. But her husband called her a zero.

My father learned from his father how to creatively insult his wife. He called my mother a word that was a play on idiot. My mother had a college degree and was an accomplished nurse, but to him she was always an idiot.

All of us kids weren’t, of course, immune to name-calling and labeling. My father called my brother an egoist whenever he asserted his individuality and did something that my parents didn’t approve of. Even my sister, who was my mother’s favorite, got called names by her like clumsy and sloppy.

As I noted in a previous post on the favorite child, my mother would taunt me about my weight, calling me a cow and saying I was as big as a mountain. When I didn’t do what she wanted, she called me a parasite. I was never the outgoing daughter she wished I was and called me a “salty fish” (an expression in another language), which really means “you have a horrible personality.” My father would often label me as over-sensitive when I expressed hurt over his criticisms or condescending remarks.

All name-calling is essentially about imprisonment. With one or two words, the abuser can pin us down as loathsome human beings who should feel honored that they’re receiving the abuser’s attention. This, in turn, makes the abuser feel powerful. I’ll say it again: We can’t do anything to change a compulsive name-caller. We need to recognize that name-calling is no less harmful than a beating.

November 16, 2010

Emotional Abuse: Intentions Versus Results

Posted in Emotional Abuse tagged , , at 9:55 am by rainbowgryphon

Whenever my dad would criticize what I said or did or offer unsolicited advice, and see how displeased I was with what he said, he would quote that stupid saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” What he was really saying was “I don’t care if you don’t like what I say; all I care about are my good intentions.”

One of the most difficult things we as human beings have to acknowledge is that our good intentions sometimes lead to hurtful results. My sister once said something very profound and insightful about my mother. My mom was a smotherer. She was so anxious to nurture us in every aspect of our lives that she was uncomfortably intrusive. She wanted to know every detail of our lives, right down to what we ate for dinner before we called her and our plans after we hung up. My sister once said to her, “You think that because you do things out of love, that makes it OK, but it doesn’t.”

Susan Forward echoes these sentiments in her book Toxic Parents. The title of one of her chapters is “Just Because You Didn’t Mean It Doesn’t Mean It Didn’t Hurt.” In that chapter, she talks specifically about inadequate parents who are unavailable for their children, making them take care of their own needs and sometimes the needs of other family members. Her point is that even when parents have their own problems to deal with, they still need to meet their obligations as parents and set those problems aside when their children’s needs have to be met.

What we’re really talking about here is responsibility. Harping on their good intentions lets abusive parents ignore the truth of their actions, that they caused damage to their children’s self-esteem, confidence, and sense of self. I’m not saying good intentions don’t count for anything. I’m saying that we need to move beyond them so that we can examine the results of our intentions and see if, how, and why they’re destructive and hurtful.

I’ve also been caught in the snare of good intentions leading to bad results. I never intended to hurt my sister, my brother, or my friends, but I did. A favorite tactic of mine when I felt overwhelmed was to retreat. It actually often had little to do with what these people did. They might have demanded something of me that was perfectly plausible under the circumstances, but it was the last straw for me. Bad feelings, insecurities, and shame had been building up within me because I wasn’t then in touch with what I was really feeling. I’d hide, withdrawing myself from everyone. They couldn’t understand what they’d done to make me act that way.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu is a Buddhist monk who wrote an essay called “The Road to Nirvana Is Paved with Skillful Intentions.” He describes the link between good intentions and good results as being one of skill. Through self-awareness, we can cut through delusional intentions: “delusion in how we formulate our intentions, delusion in how we perceive our intentions, and delusion in how we attend to their results.” He relates advice given by the Buddha to his son, Rahula, to reflect throughout the intentions-results process: before he acts, during his actions, and after he acts. By learning from his mistaken intentions, those that weren’t actually as noble as he thought they were, he can sharpen his skill in making truly good intentions lead to only good results.

I think we’ve all been in situations where the truth of our actions has hit us like a sandbag to the head because we never intended to do harm but did. We can find some solace in acknowledging our good intentions, but to really rise above the harmful results, we have to move beyond our good intentions and want to also bring good results.

Too many abusive parents can’t see that they’re doing anything wrong, let alone that they need to correct their behavior. Like my father, they’re more interested in their good intentions than in the results of those intentions. When I abused my siblings and friends, I was focused on avoiding interactions that seemed to make my bad feelings worse, even though it had nothing to do with what they had said or done. It was all coming from within. I can’t change what I did, only what I do from now on.

As difficult as it is, we can step back from our behavior and see the bigger picture. Interactions with others is never just about one side. When we do, the door opens to a deeper exploration of the intentions-results process. Even if we can’t do this while the interaction is going on, it’s worth doing afterward because we can cleanse ourselves of what was less than good in our good intentions and use that knowledge for next time. We can become better people.

November 2, 2010

Emotional Abuse in My Teenage Years

Posted in Emotional Abuse tagged , at 10:25 am by rainbowgryphon

In some ways, enduring emotional abuse is worse in the teen years. We need and deserve more autonomy than when we’re kids, but we’re also dealing with some confusing issues like a changing body, peer pressure to do some nasty things, and the transition from child to adult. Abusive parents may feel their control over their children slipping away as they get older and tighten the reigns in ways that are inappropriate for a 14- to 18-year-old. For parents who had a hard time keeping up with their children when they were young, the lack of guidance can make teens even more lost and confused.

These teens realize that their abusive parents’ smothering, criticism, invalidation, ridicule, humiliation, and whatever other emotionally abusive behavior they’re enduring isn’t normal, but they feel trapped. Social services agencies are supposed to take emotional abuse as seriously as physical or sexual abuse, but as the National Exchange Club Foundation notes on its emotional abuse page, “[t]he lack of physical injury or obvious mental trauma makes it challenging for protective service workers to intervene.”

Girl looking out of window

“Window Light” Photo by Anita Patterson, courtesy of morgueFile under a free use license

I know I felt helpless when I was a teenager. Partly this was due to two unnecessary moves in my teen years, one at the age of 13 and the other when I was 16 to a foreign country that was my parents’ home but was alien to me. I had just discovered creative writing, but they weren’t interested in encouraging me. My mother preferred that I have lots of friends and be interested in boys and shopping rather than be a loner who loved literature and writing. My father was already hounding me about what I wanted to do with my future. He ignored me when I said I wanted to be a writer. I read lots of depressing poetry and classic novels because they helped me escape from reality. I fantasized a lot about being a successful writer far away from my family where no one made me feel like a freak or like I was wrong all the time. I thought about suicide a lot.

When you’re a teen with emotionally abusive parents, you have to deal with reality. You can’t expect them to change, even if you fight them, because they don’t think they’re doing anything wrong and they don’t take what you feel, want, and think seriously anyway. I wish I could have gotten mad. If I wasn’t so duped and afraid of feeling angry, I would have been in a much better position to heal myself. But getting mad at my sacrificing, righteous parents, who were better than any other parents out there, wasn’t allowed. If I was frustrated, unhappy, and paralyzed then there was something wrong with me, not them.

Destructive rebellion is an easy way to soothe pain, except, of course, that it doesn’t in the long run and can lead to even more problems. Alcohol and drug abuse are a bad road to go down because you could be putting yourself in prison, psychologically if not literally. It may take a while to want to get off the alcohol or drugs, and when it does, you begin to understand the true meaning of imprisonment. It’s also easy to cling to girlfriends or boyfriends who are struggling to find themselves as much as you are. You may move from one to another without even realizing that you’re searching for things no one else can ever give you, or if you do realize it then you don’t know how to get off the relationship train that takes you around in circles. This could lead to teen parenthood, which adds a whole lot of responsibilities onto the ones you already have as a teen, if you want to do more than work a minimum wage job all your life.

I didn’t do any of these things because I was too obedient and too shy. Instead, I looked for true friends (no drama, no emotional abuse) who would validate my feelings and support me when all I got at home was criticism, ridicule, and oppression. I never showed my writing to my family, but I often showed it to my friends, who knew how much it meant to me and how important their encouragement was to me. I read a lot and spent as much time as I could at the library, a quiet place where I could be as bookish as I wanted to be without someone making me feel like I was a freak. I kept a journal where I complained, expressed my hopelessness, and made unrealistic plans for the future. I tried, as best as I could, to hang onto whatever felt authentic during a time when I had to cover up who I really was because it went against so much of what my parents wanted from me. It wasn’t perfect, but it got me through a time when I felt like I had no other choice but to endure.

October 26, 2010

Emotional Abuse Versus Poor Parenting: Part 2

Posted in Emotional Abuse tagged , , at 10:43 am by rainbowgryphon

In Emotional Abuse and “Poor Parenting”: Part 1, I wrote about a report by David A. Wolfe and Caroline McIsaac called Distinguishing Between Poor/Dysfunctional Parenting and Child Emotional Maltreatment for the Family Violence and Prevention Unit of the Public Health Agency of Canada. In this report, the researchers discuss what they consider to be two distinct but related forms of problematic parenting: “poor parenting” and emotional abuse. They note that both types of parenting can’t balance discipline with support, lack positive experiences to balance out negative ones, are inflexible in dealing effectively with a child’s changing needs, don’t meet minimal standards of care, and involve over-control and unrealistic expectations. However, they judged emotional abuse involves more severe repetitive behaviors and a higher likelihood of emotional harm to the child.

It’s these differences that concern me the most. In my mind, both criteria bring up thorny questions not addressed in the report. First, given that the five similarities they cite indicate patterned behaviors, how repetitive is the behavior supposed to be before it’s called abuse? Also, if “poor parenting” behaviors are so similar to emotional abuse then how can we say they wouldn’t potentially cause emotional harm? Another factor they ignore is their own statement previously in the report that the way a child reacts to negative parenting depends a lot on the individual child. This invites a paradoxical situation where parents both are and aren’t emotionally abusive because one of their children experiences emotional harm while the other doesn’t.

In Appendix A of this report, the researchers list parenting behaviors that display healthy parenting, “poor parenting,” and emotional abuse. When comparing the columns for “poor parenting” and emotional abuse, I was disturbed by what appeared to be mere differences in wording, especially since both refer to repetitive behaviors. For instance, a “poor parent” “seems unconcerned with child’s developmental/psychological needs.” The emotional abuser “shows little or no sensitivity to child’s needs.” Is this really more than just a difference in wording? When describing disciplinary measures, the “poor parent” “frequently uses coercive methods and minimizes child’s competence” as well as “uses psychologically controlling methods that confuse, upset child.” The emotionally abusive parent, when disciplining a child, “uses cruel and harsh control methods that frighten child” and “violates minimal community standards on occasion” (whatever that may mean). When taken from the point of view of the victim, is coercion, undermining of competence, and psychological control any less damaging than cruel, harsh control and violation of “minimal community standards”?

This leads me to what I feel are two crucial factors missing when assessing what is emotional abuse and what is supposedly less damaging “poor parenting.” The victim’s interpretation of parental behavior as abuse is never mentioned. The report does address the effects on a child, such as distress and low self-esteem, but this is different from actually asking a child old enough to understand what abuse is whether they feel abused. The second factor that seems to me to be missing in this report is the family system. Wolfe and McIsaac do discuss what lies beneath destructive parental behaviors, but their intervention criteria basically focus on behaviors and don’t consider the destructive implications underlying the behaviors. What this leads to, in my opinion, is inadequate recognition of what emotional abuse truly involves from the point of view of the victim.

For instance, they spoke with an American researcher who gave an example of a father who, deciding that his daughter was too preoccupied with appearance and attracting boys, gives her a haircut, causing her distress. This was categorized as “poor parenting” rather than emotional abuse. The reasons for this aren’t clearly given, just that this incident involves “over-involvement and power assertive discipline.” In my opinion, this father’s behavior is extreme, inappropriate to the situation, and indicates deeper control problems that are likely reflected in many different ways. Possibly this wasn’t categorized as emotional abuse because the researcher felt the girl would “get over it” as she matured, but what about the effects of this father’s deeper control issues? In my eyes, this action was aimed at disempowering his daughter, which is clearly emotional abuse.

This report was prepared because the Public Health Agency of Canada recognized that emotional abuse deserves more serious attention than it’s been getting until now, which is admirable. It also helps us see how difficult it is for social services agencies to get a clear idea of what emotional abuse is, let alone intervene. The researchers do not say that “poor parenting” is something to be ignored, but I’m disturbed that they claim that “poor parenting” isn’t emotional abuse. I don’t believe that reflects what a victim really experiences, and worse, it opens the door for us and others to minimize these destructive behaviors and their consequences. This is why we can’t depend on anyone else to validate our pain. We need to trust that what we feel is the truth and take control of our own healing.

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